Poverty on the Rebound: The Work of Models

Article excerpt


Conversations between scholars across disciplinary divides, searching for means to understand the multiple dimensions of poverty, have much to offer a field that continues to be dominated by mainstream economics.1 An open-ended exploration of alternatives to this approach, represented by most of the papers in this collection, contributes to the emergence of a broader discussion in social science on poverty and poverty alleviation. But open-endedness in this sense is itself a perspective and is challenged by endeavors across the disciplines that seek to establish a foundation on which theory, method, and policy can be developed (Lather, 1986; Campbell, 2001; cf. Bloor, 1997; Gudeman, 2005). If the first of these perspectives - i.e., the notion that everyone is "right" from her or his own point of view and that adding views will result in a more complete or improved understanding - is relativist, the other is not. Interestingly, arguments for or against relativism and foundationalism (or universalism) crisscross in the social scientific field, both within and between disciplines, and are not reducible to a formal academic divide.

In this paper I will offer a set of reflections on the promises of openended conversations, but also on the difficulties implied in combining the methodologies, concepts, and assumptions of what some argue are incompatible research traditions (see, e.g., Shaffer, 2005). The focus is on Latin America but the scope is global. While I place emphasis on the relevance of an anthropological re-encounter with poverty, I also aim to measure the contribution of the volume against the current literature by surveying approaches to poverty across the disciplines and to the power (or work) of models in liberal economics.


The economic crisis in Latin America culminating in 2002 was the first "event" to cast serious doubts on the feasibility of the first of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty in the world, initially by halving it by the year 2015 (UN, 2001 and 2002). As it now occurred in countries like Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Mexico, many descended into poverty and the number who escaped from it in less affected places was not as high as had previously been anticipated (see Portes and Huffman, 2003; Krishna et al., 2006).

According to estimates of the World Bank, every fifth person in the world now lives in extreme poverty (i.e., on less that US$1 a day) and close to every second lives in poverty (i.e., on less than US2$ a day) (World Bank, 2006:9). The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL/ECLAC) assesses the emergence of the contemporary state of poverty thus: at the beginning of the 1970s as much as 40 percent of the Latin American population was considered poor. Progress towards the end of that decade was unmade during what has been dubbed "the lost decade" of the 1980s with severe economic crisis due to a combination of debt and adjustment-related recession. People in the region lived through the 1990s with poverty affecting a now even larger proportion of Latin Americans than in the early 1970s (see www.eclac.cl; Londofio and Székely, 2000; Vos et al., 2003). In the autumn of 2002, the poor in Argentina, severely affected by the recent crisis, made up no less than 57 percent of the population, and as high a number as 27 percent fell below the level of extreme poverty (see Maute, 2006). Poverty on a general Latin American level had risen to 44 percent by 2003 (see Vigorito in this volume).

An apparently reawakened and worldwide interest in the issue of poverty alleviation through the not necessarily convergent avenues of redistributive justice and economic growth could be viewed as a response to this dismal development of the last thirty years. Political scientist Alain Noël argues that the UN Millennium Goals prepared the ground for what later developed into a "global anti-poverty consensus" (Noel, 2006:304; see also Townsend, 2002; Grusky and Kanbur, 2006), reflected by the joint rediscovery from both left and right, from grassroots organizations and corporate and government power holders, of the central importance of developing new political means to combat poverty. …